A simple solution to an epidemic problem
Becoming more ‘mindful’ was without doubt one of the best things I ever did. The ability to bring more presence into my life has had massive benefits for my mental health and consistent wellbeing. Being more present has allowed me to detach from negative thoughts at will, it’s helped me to better preserve my energy, enrich my life and relationships and allowed my mind and body to become much more peaceful and harmonious. I’ve been practicing mindfulness meditation since 2006 and I can wholeheartedly say it’s transformed my life for the better.
One of the most popular mindfulness meditations in practice is known as ‘mindfulness of the breath’. In this particular meditation the object is to observe the breath non-judgementally, that is, to be fully in the moment; to watch but not comment. Simple eh? Believe me, this takes practice and patience, but a skill to be desired, worthwhile in every way. Undoubtedly, whilst practising this meditation the mind will wander because that’s what the mind does – it comments on everything and is generally reflective of our inner state. The more peaceful we are; the less commentary, the more stressed we are; the more commentary. This is why minimising stress in our lives is in our best interests, look after the mind and the mind will look after you! There’s no denying that our society is consumed with people who don’t look after their minds hence the epidemic problem we now face. It’s through no fault of their own that they face this burden it’s just that our society has little understanding to offer people both from a preventative and curative measure. How can you a fix a problem if you can find the leak?
Few people are being given sufficient understanding and worse still; the standard of education they are given isn’t good enough!
So how does one look after the mind then?
Well, I believe that first you need to develop a great understanding of it. To learn exactly what it is and how it affects the body will help you appreciate how powerful the mind is. The mind is a formless continuum that functions to perceive and understand objects and once you begin to understand it, and respect it, and use it more wisely you will notice a positive shift in your overall wellbeing. As a former sufferer of panic disorder, agoraphobia and depression I can tell you with great certainty that an understanding of the mind is paramount to overcoming such adversities and also for wellbeing in general. Take a look at the above cartoon which offers a great insight into the workings of the mind and the effects of its misuse. Although the cartoon may look rather simple the real truth is that the most common forms of mental health complaints, anxiety and depression, are actually very simply caused. Likewise, recovery from them is simple too – I did say simple, not easy!
The cartoon highlights the importance of being present in order to be happy and peaceful. It suggests that bringing too much past into the mind can lead to depression and, similarly, bringing too much future can lead to anxiety. The average person’s mind processes around 80,000 thoughts per day and its estimated a whopping 98% of these thoughts are the same repeated thoughts as the previous day! Take a moment to fully realise that. When considering this is it any wonder people suffering with anxiety and depression can find it so difficult to find a way out?
Helping people understand exactly how these thoughts can cause anxiety and depression is paramount to recovery and wellbeing in general.
As a former sufferer, therapist and owner of mental health company Mindsafe I have done my fair share of Investigative work. When researching such afflictions all roads eventually lead to the wonderful world of neuroscience; the study of the brain and how it all works. The last ten years in this fascinating field of science have proven of great significance particularly in the quest to understand how thoughts can create mood disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Some people have an incessant need to hold on to the past, as if, by ruminating over and over again will bring some satisfactory closure… it seldom does. Instead, holding on to regrets, bitterness and grievances only causes us to feel low and eventually depressed. Interestingly, this style of thinking is very different to worry and has very little to do with our fear circuitry and instead has much to do with a chemical called serotonin. Serotonin has many properties and one of which is its association with our mood. Generally speaking the more serotonin we have then the better we feel. For some reason thinking in a past-based ruminative style leads to a reduction in serotonin and general mood is then compromised. Depression eventually follows. It’s also interesting that some people struggle with low mood and depression particularly in the winter months. The manufacture and transportation of serotonin relies significantly on vitamin D. Have a guess where most of the body get its vitamin D? You guessed it, the sun! Is it any wonder why people often feel low mood, tired and unmotivated during the long dark winter months in the UK.
Renowned neuroscientist Professor Joseph Ledoux has contributed significantly to this field and in particular to that of ‘fear conditioning’. It is through research and findings like his that help us to understand the importance of being more present (as in the cartoon). Ledoux showed how repeated anxious thoughts (worry), can cause our brains fear circuitry to respond in the same way that it would if we were being chased by a wild beast. This is because all worry is ‘fear’ based at its root and because worry has many disguises it can quickly fill our minds if we are not careful. Worry can be found in embarrassment, disgrace, shame, envy, if we are comparing, interpreting, controlling and over-analysing to name just a few of its many guises. If only we were taught the dangers of worry at an early age then perhaps the number of anxiety sufferers would dramatically be reduced. I believe it really would and to a very large degree.
Knowledge is power, but without action it’s powerless.
Complacency is the biggest reason for relapse of anxiety and depressive disorders and why the majority of sufferers never make full recovery. Some sufferers may have successful therapy or positive change may occur in their life, perhaps a new relationship or a new job, and this is enough to help them disengage from the worry or rumination which caused the illness. With a mind engaged in outward things and interest aroused the body can repair itself and mental fatigue can lift, recovery will always follow in this way. The person cracks on with life with renewed energy and optimism only to find that it returns later down the line with vengeance. Why is this? Simple, they began to worry or ruminate once again. Fix the problem from the root and the leak will never come back again!
The scope of this article is not to give you all the answers but to point you in the right direction and to emphasise that the establishment, persistence and recovery of these mental health complaints is simple. Let’s not overcomplicate things and abbreviate things, or make five, ten or twelve step programmes, or focus on diet, medications and hocus pocus secret cures. The answer is simple – be more mindful. Learn how to be more present and nature will take care of the rest.
By Matthew Coleclough